Using Data to Improve Test Questions

October 29, 2014 Kristen Hicks

Students may think taking a test is hard, but they should see what it’s like on the other side. Most people don’t think about what goes into writing a successful test until tasked with doing it themselves. And then it’s a quick lesson in what a challenge it can be.

Writing a test is work no matter what, but there are a few tricks to help you make sure the multiple-choice questions and answer options you write will successfully gauge student knowledge. If you’re going to put in the time to write a test, you definitely want the questions to do their job. Here are some helpful tips:

1) Start with the goal in mind. Before you start writing questions for a test, write down what you want the test to measure. Make sure the objectives and skills you’re testing for are well defined so you can come to each question with a clearer idea of what it should accomplish. Then write each question so it measures a specific learning objective.

2) Keep each question focused on one thing. Test questions should be challenging, not confusing. Avoid complexity in your questions and focus each question on one idea and content area.

3) Keep your answer options consistent in length and style. If three of your four answer options are ten to fifteen words each and the fourth is fifty words, students are more likely to choose the longer option. You don’t want to do anything that might be perceived as offering a clue to the right answer, or the wrong ones.

4) Avoid ambiguity. Your questions and answers shouldn’t be too general, and your questions shouldn’t ask about things that are opinion based. Stick to questions with objective answers and avoid ambiguous language like “frequently” or “good” that speaks more to opinion than fact.

5) Avoid patterns in your answers. The distribution of right answers should be random. If there are too many Cs in a row, then students might think they’re on to something and choose all Cs. To help keep things random, write your answer key first so it’s easier to place the right answers at random throughout the test. Then fill in the content from the key you created.

6) Proofread. If your test is confusing due to bad grammar, not only is that embarrassing, but it could make it difficult for students to understand the questions. Make sure your tests are clearly written and grammatically sound so that you don’t give anything away in the answers. A question that’s clearly asking for a response in the singular can’t have answer options in the plural. If it does, you’re inadvertently narrowing down the choices for your students.

7) Measure the results. You can try to do everything right from the beginning and still end up with questions that are unclear or don’t successfully measure the learning objective you’re aiming for. Pay attention to how students answer them and what trends there might be that point toward a bad question.

If there’s a question that everyone always gets wrong or everyone always gets right, it’s not doing its job. If there’s an incorrect answer option that almost no one ever picks, then it should be replaced. Take time to review the success of your test questions and refine them for better results.

Interested in more information on writing successful exam questions? Check out this recorded webinar hosted by Dr. Jim Wollack, Director of the UW Center for Placement Testing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Dr. Sonya Sedivy, Assistant Scientist for Testing and Evaluation Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

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